Let’s face it: We miss playing games with people. Social distancing doesn’t just mean avoiding other shoppers at the grocery store; it means no longer having friends or family over to our houses. Gaming is such a great way to bring people together, and right now that’s kind of gone out the window. Luckily, there are ways to keep the games going online.
This is the latest in a series where I’m highlighting board games and tabletop roleplaying games for folks to try out at home. We started with single-player-friendly games (sometimes referred to as solo or “solitaire play” games), then two-player games, then family-friendly games, and now online versions for folks who’ve been separated by social distancing. Most of my family is on the other side of the country, so having things that can connect us and provide a little levity really helps. Here’s a list of some resources to help you play board games and tabletop roleplaying games with your family and friends online.
I do want to point out that if you’ve got FaceTime, Skype, Google Hangouts, Zoom, or another form of video chat, it can be easy to set up a group game for free. For example, if you’re already familiar with Dungeons & Dragons, it’s not hard to set up an online session through video chat. Wizards of the Coast has some great resources to help with that. Some games that use solitary play, like Disney Villainous, can be played through video chat—so long as both parties have copies of the game. Even Jackbox Party Pack games can be played this way. Just point your camera at the TV screen (if you have it on console) and have everybody use the same code.
There are other board games and tabletop RPGs that simply can’t be played that way, but that doesn’t stop us from wanting to play them. So here are the sites to check out for help, along with some of their featured games.
Roll20.net is one of the best online resources for playing tabletop RPGs remotely. GMs can create a virtual game and invite players to a video or audio chat, with the screen showing different maps, challenges, and scenarios. It takes a bit of work to learn how to use the platform—especially for folks wanting to use miniatures and tokens—and the online tutorial is...confusing at best. Luckily, there are plenty of YouTube tutorials (like this one) to get you started.
Roll20 is free to use (though it does offer a paid subscription that removes ads), and there are several campaigns you can purchase that come with everything you need to run a game through the system. You can technically play just about any game on there—there are free resources like generic tokens, maps, and character sheets—but I’m going to profile some of the ones sold in the store.
For those wanting to get into (or return to) Dungeons & Dragons but nervous about learning both the game and the Roll20 system, the Dungeons & Dragons Stranger Things Starter Set ($14.99) is a great way to ease into things, because it requires very little setup. It comes with a fully prepared adventure with pre-generated characters that will help players learn the rules of each class—along with prepared maps and encounters, meaning the GM and players can easily hop into each scenario.
The great thing about Fate is that it can be anything. Fate Core is a flexible system where players and GMs work together to build the story from the ground up—but that doesn’t mean there aren’t campaigns available to help kick things off. The Fate Complete Bundle ($19.99) comes with just about everything needed to get familiar with the Fate system, which can be used over and over for a variety of sessions. There’s Fate Core, of course, along with the quicker version, Fate Accelerated. For folks wanting a campaign, the bundle comes with Masters of Umdaar and Til Dawn. I’m currently guiding some players through Til Dawn, which is a futuristic Eurovision-style DJ competition inspired by RuPaul’s Drag Race. It’s out of sight.
If you’re wanting something in the RPG family but a little easier to maintain, there’s For the Queen ($7.99) from Evil Hat Productions. This is a card-based storytelling game where players work together to construct a narrative out of randomized prompt cards, building a royal court around a queen who may or may not inspire love and devotion from her subjects. This one’s great because no GM is necessary—everyone can play together—but it still has those storytelling elements that make it a fun collaborative process.
When it comes to computer games, Steam reigns supreme. The online service has had some issues over the years, most notably abandoning its system for new game approval in favor of an “everything goes” policy, but there have been some improvements since then. It’s no surprise Valve recently set a new record of 20 million users in a single day, because everybody is on Steam right now—by themselves, as well as together.
Steam has thousands of releases from popular and indie developers and has been the source of many of today’s biggest indie games. Most of the site is focused on traditional video games, because obviously, but there is a growing community for online adaptations of board games. I’ve pulled out a few that are accessible for online multiplayer, which means you can play with friends and family while social distancing. But keep in mind that every person who wants to join has to own their own copy in Steam. It’s not a “one game for all” thing.
Our planet sucks right now, so let’s envision a better one. Terraforming Mars ($19.99) is a turn-based strategy game where players take on the role of corporations working to terraform the planet. The Steam version is a rich and detailed adaptation of the original game, created in conjunction with original game author, Jacob Fryxelius. Can be played with up to five players in local or online competitive play.
Mysterium ($6.99), the Cluedo-type game where players work together to help a ghost solve their own murder, got a gorgeous transition onto Steam. It’s one that almost seems to showcase the artwork of the “dream cards” better than the game itself! This version supports up to seven players and features a chat function so everybody can work together to try and figure out the ghost’s clues—pointing them toward the killer.
I tried to find an online version of Werewolf or Mafia, and Town of Salem ($4.99) was the closest thing. In this game, players are residents of Salem, Massachusetts, and every person is given a different secret task. One person might be an arsonist, while another is a doctor who tries to heal folks who’ve been injured by the secret serial killers. This game is for seven to 15 players, so it’s great for a large group of friends or family.
Drawful 2 is one of the earlier Jackbox Party games, and it’s just a silly and fun way to spend 30 minutes with friends. The reason I’ve added it to the list is because it’s currently free on Steam as a way to help bring people together during the pandemic situation.
Tabletop Simulator, available on Steam ($19.99), is a platform for hosting and playing virtual tabletop games using, well, a simulated table. It comes equipped with several common games, like dominoes, mahjong, and poker, and there’s a Steam Workshop where tons of folks share their own games they’ve created. There are also several popular board games available for purchase that have been adapted for the platform.
The main issue with Tabletop Simulator is the cost. Each person has to spend $20 to download it for Steam, and after that some of the bigger games cost additional money to download (though most of them only require one person to buy it). This one is more of an investment, and in my opinion only worth it if you’re really wanting to recreate that tabletop experience remotely—or if you and your friends all have VR. I’ve highlighted a few of my favorites games below.
Wingspan ($7.99) is probably one of the best games that’s been adapted for Tabletop Simulator. In this game, players are working to bring a variety of birds to their wildlife sanctuaries. It’s educational, entertaining, and challenging. There’s also an independent Steam version in the works—and honestly it looks better than the Tabletop Simulator version—which is set to come out sometime this spring.
Boss Monster ($4.99) is an entertaining card game where two to four players each take on the roll of a video game boss who’s building a dungeon too deadly for any hero who dares walk into it. Players build and grow their dungeons with dangerous monsters and hazardous traps, trying to collect enough “souls” to win the game. It’s a very entertaining game that’s a little tricky to learn, but really easy once you get the hang of it.
For those wanting a more accessible game, perhaps for relatives who aren’t used to board and card games (much less remote ones), there’s Superfight ($9.99). In this game, players combine cards to create weird characters that are then put face-to-face in a battle to the death. Who will win? Well, it’s up the players to convince everyone else that their creation would emerge the victor. It’s a fun party game that’s been adapted for Tabletop Simulator, with plenty of expansions, making it a simple game to pick up in the evening for an hour or so.
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